Since the first day, Dennis Gates he went out of his way to take the “me” off his team. He will praise individual players when deserved, but will rarely lift anyone above the rest. He has often identified players who only played a handful of minutes or pointed to contributions that many skip over as keys to a win.
After Tuesday night’s 83-74 win over South Carolina, Gates broke character. He said what he knows most who watch this Missouri team.
“As the season goes on, his job is going to get a lot more difficult,” Gates said Kobe Brown. “It will continue to get difficult. And he must understand how frustrating it is to be that person who is the identity of our program (is).
Anyone who has watched Missouri’s season resurgence knows that Kobe Brown is the face of the program. First, you’re the only one who’s been here for four years. But above all, he is the best player. He is the star of Missouri. Gates knows. Brown knows. Every opposing coach knows this. But Tuesday was the first time Gates said that out loud.
“(He) has teammates, that’s why he believes in them, but he has to understand his role in that,” Gates said. “He can never have a bad day.”
Those words came on the heels of what Gates thought would be a bad day for his star.
“I wasn’t happy with Kobe’s start and challenged him,” the coach said. “I looked him in the eye several times and challenged him because I thought he passed the ball too much and gave up some open shots that he normally took.
“Do not you see it. You don’t know what my words were. But he and I shared words, some my mother wouldn’t be proud to hear. But she replied. She answered the way I thought a player in the top 50 in the country, a potential conference player of the year, should answer.
Missouri is headed straight for the NCAA Tournament this season. Tuesday night hasn’t always been nice. It wasn’t as easy as many wanted or expected it to be. But it was the Tigers’ 18th win, more than they’ve had in any season in five years. He pushed them one game over .500 in the league and within a game of fourth place in the Southeastern Conference. Most important of all, he avoided what would have been a résumé-smearing Quad 4 loss to the worst team in the league.
But that season will only go as far as Kobe Brown’s play carries it.
This is a relatively deep Missouri team. There are 12 guys who have achieved significant minutes. He is averaging seven or more points per game, which has never happened in school history. On a given night, D’Moi Hodge, Nick Honor, DeAndre Gholston, Sean East, Noah Carter OR Isiah Mosley he is able to lead the team in scoring.
But none of them are the faces of the show. That’s Kobe Brown.
Despite all the bouquets that have been and will be thrown at Gates for the work he has done this season – and he deserves them all – the most important thing he has done is to convince Brown to stay at Columbia when the coach for he came to play got fired after his junior season. Brown spent the offseason in the weight room and behind the three-point line, trying to turn fat into muscle and his outside shooting into a weapon.
Brown had never shot better than 48% from the floor in his first three seasons. He’s shooting 57.3% this year. A career-high 23.7% three-point shooter in his first three years, Brown is connecting on 45.7% this year and has already made 13 more 3-pointers than any previous season. He is hitting and shooting more free throws than he ever has before and averaging career-high points, steals and assists while reducing turnovers from a year ago.
Brown is not rambunctious. Gates has often challenged him to be a little more explicit with his teammates this year. As Gates was breaking him down before preparing him for his Tuesday night game, Brown sat quietly to his coach’s right, reacting little to criticism or praise. When asked about his six assists, Brown credited his teammates for making the shots. When asked about his rebound and tenacity, he remained low-key and soft-spoken.
“I really just try to try as hard as I can, I just do what’s really good for the team,” said Brown. “I know I’m not always the strongest guy on the track, but I try to show that I am if that makes sense. I don’t want anyone to take advantage of me.”
Not many are. Alabama phenomenon Brandon Miller he’s likely to be the SEC Player of the Year, averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds on a team that hasn’t lost a conference game. But Brown has as strong an argument as anyone in the league and is nearly a lockout for first-team all-conference honors in another three-and-a-half weeks.
But Brown and his teammates will ultimately be judged on subsequent games. The Tigers should be favorites to win their first game in the conference tournament. They should then return to the NCAA Tournament the following week. Brown only played one tournament game in his career. Lui had eight points and six rebounds in a 72-68 loss to Oklahoma in the 2021 tournament. Missouri will need more than that this March. He has some help, but everyone knows: These Tigers will only go as far as Kobe Brown can lead them.
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